The Algorithm is People! Rocking out with Beats Music for Android
Beats Music is aiming to turn your phone into a virtual DJ. Nobody needs another music player: the real competition, these days, is music recommendation — bringing users songs that they don’t know they like yet — and it’s a competition that Beats Music intends to win, at least in the US.
Moving into a market like music streaming this late in the game takes guts: the entire scene lives in the hulking, radioactive shadow of Spotify, the industry leader by a wide margin. Spotify provides a killer service on PC and mobile , and if you’re going up against it, you’d better have a really good idea. Beats, the Mothra to Spotify’s Godzilla, is betting big that human curation can beat algorithmic recommendations.
The underlying architecture of Beats’ recommendation engine is based on extensive human analysis: what songs sound like other songs? Perhaps more importantly, what songs feel like other songs? For this review, we road-tested Beats for three days to see if the human touch could actually beat Spotify at its own game.
Look and Feel
When you start up Beats, you are immediately struck by the hard-to-shake impression that you aren’t cool enough to be using it. The startup sequence (in which you pick genres and artists that you like) is impressively slick, resembling a phone game more than a music player. When it’s done getting a sense of your taste, the app dumps you into its main interface.
Beats’ interface is appealing and unique, fleshed out in clean lines of black, white, and dark maroon. The best word for Beats might be ‘cool,’ and, to its credit, that coolness never interferes with functionality: all of the individual pieces of UI work well — when they work at all, anyway. Sadly, the app was also on the buggy side: several features refused to work consistently, and we had to restart the app several times to resolve this.
On the upside, the music sounds good: without an audiophile’s ear on hand to make a final call, we’ll say that most of the songs sounded about as good as Spotify on WiFi and 4G, meaning that we could hear minimal additional distortion through our mid-grade consumer speakers and headphones . That said, for those who have strong opinions about bitrates and are frustrated with the quality of Spotify, we don’t think that Beats is likely to replace your lossless FLACs anytime soon.
Beats is feature-complete with Spotify, but the UI it presents to the user is all about finding music, not building playlists. The playlist and search functionality is buried under a side-menu and generally ignored. The core UI is built around four pages: “Just For You”, “The Sentence”, “Highlights”, and “Find It”.
Just For You
This is the core recommendations page of the app, which relies on a large database of hand-coded human intuitions about which songs are similar (Spotify and Pandora, in contrast, uses algorithmic analysis of music to generate their song ordering). Structurally, the page resembles Spotify’s ‘Discover’ page, presenting a long list of albums and songs that the site thinks you might like. The recommendations didn’t seem markedly better than Spotify, but that might have improved as the app collected more information.
This is by far the most gimmicky and unique feature of Beats. Users plug in keywords through a mad-libs-esque interface, and get out music. The mechanism here is totally opaque, making it hard to figure out how to refine it. That said, after a few minutes of fiddling with it, I was able to extract good music, and not necessarily music that I ordinarily would have listened to. If nothing else, “The Sentence” passes the sniff test for purely practical reasons.
“Highlights” is where the app breaks out the star power inevitable from the brand that brought us ‘Beats by Dre’, with an up-to-date list of albums and playlists by music industry giants. This is cool – but, as with the headphones, doesn’t do much to sell the product on its own merits.
The last tab, “Find it” is a huge database of human-curated playlists sorted by genre and activity. The playlists were surprisingly good: consistent, rarely jarring, and full of quality music – though, naturally, your mileage may vary on the last point. Whether or not this feature holds up in the long run depends on how actively it’s maintained.
The app has a large library of music (about 20 million songs, similar to Spotify), which can be searched, played by song, artist, or album, and organized into playlists. All of this functionality works fine — the issue is how it integrates into the rest of the service; or, to be more specific, how it does not. All of this stuff is hidden away in a single, distinctly unloved menu that doesn’t even get its own pane in the main interface. The UI here is significantly less polished, and generally just doesn’t feel like it’s part of a coherent whole with the rest of the features of the app.
In fact, the app feels like two largely distinct services, one a slightly shoddy Spotify clone, and the other a cool music recommendation engine, crudely Frankensteined together with bolts and stitches still showing. It’s not clear to the user how the two parts connect to one another. There’s no obvious way to get recommendations similar to one of your playlists or albums, or to shuffle a playlist with recommendations sprinkled in, features that you’d think would be core functionality for an app as focused on recommendations as this one.
Beats Music vs. Spotify Premium
Beats Music and Spotify Premium both cost about $10.00 a month, and both offer unlimited ad-free streaming and recommendations, though Beats music seems to have better recommendation tools than Spotify. Spotify supports international use, while Beats Music is US exclusive. Spotify offers a free version with ads and shuffle-only functionality on mobile, while Beats Music exists only as a paid service with a seven-day free trial. Spotify Premium also gets you ad-free streaming on its PC client – Beats does have a web player, but it’s buggy, ugly, and missing most of the core features. For now, at least, Spotify Premium is the clear winner for your ten dollars.
A possible exception might hold for AT&T customers, as Beats is currently offering a deal in which, for $15 a month, the whole family can get membership simultaneously, which is a tempting offer despite the shortcomings of the service.
The Future of Beats
Beats Music is an app with a lot of good ideas. What it is not, however, is an app that’s even remotely coherent. It’s a mess of good ideas kludged together in no particular order and without clear use-cases in mind. Between its bugginess, the weird organizational choices, and the lack of a decent desktop player, we don’t recommend switching from Spotify Premium right now.
That said, the recommendation engine behind Beat is really cool, as are the high-quality curated playlists, and, if Beats can fix some of its underlying problems, it could be a serious contender in the future.
Download: Beats Music For Android [$9.99/month] [No longer available]